David Cooper's Education Blog

4. P.E. and Obesity
3. Why is school all or nothing?
2. Scottish Curriculum for Excellence
1. Education = School?

If you want to comment on any of these blog entries, please do so by e-mail using "e" for "education" and the blog entry number: e.g. r5 at magicschoolbook dot com. I can't promise to add your comments here, but I will read them all.

5: High Cost of University Education (and the future of work)

So, university education's now going to cost 9000 a year per student in England. Is that a reasonable cost for what students get? It seems to me that if they're any good, they should be fully capable of learning most of the content of their courses on their own without having to take up anyone's valuable time time, so why not restructure the whole system to allow this throughout the first year or two of university education, thereby slashing the cost to virtually zero during those years? This would allow students who are likely to drop out to do so before it gets expensive, and that means that they wouldn't be getting into debt and leaving it to the country to pick up the bill if they never manage to earn a high enough salary to be required to pay it off themselves. Those who want to continue in university education would also have a much better idea of whether they should go ahead.
We are sending twice as many people to university now as in the past, but for what purpose? Are they really all going to end up with a job which depends on the things they have learned at uni? How many of them will earn enough to pay off their student loans? Are there going to be jobs for them in the future? The reality is that most of them will never make full use of what they have learned, and the ones that do will mainly have been studying things which required little feedback - they could get through university purely by teaching themselves and by sitting exams to prove they have learned everything required of them. Anything that actually requires direct feedback from a professor could be bought as required for an awful lot less than 9000 a year.
In the near future, artificial intelligence will wipe out most of the jobs that universities prepare people to do. I gave university a miss in order to concentrate on my own linguistics work, and that led me into computer programming and artificial intelligence when I noticed a possible route to making a computer pass the Turing Test (where it has to display sufficient intelligence to pass itself off as a human). I am still working towards that goal and am steadily closing in on the finish line, though I can't be sure that I'll be the first to reach it. What I can tell you, however, is that most of today's students are never going to earn enough to pay off their loans because this disruptive technology is going to put almost everyone out of work within a decade.
We will always want an educated population, so university-level education will continue regardless, but we won't be driving people through it on an industrial scale, and their future lives will not depend on it. For most people, life will be about leisure and travel. People often moan about the failure of computers to liberate us from lives of toil, but it is actually the politicians who are to blame for this failure (though they obviously take their lead from the people who vote them in, so in truth the fault must be spread a lot wider). They think their job is to create as much employment as possible, but they should actually be trying to eliminate as many jobs as they can. A quarter of the workforce are engaged in completely fake work, and another quarter provide services to help them carry out that fake work. If we eliminated all fake work, the amount of people in employment would rapidly crash to half the current level, and it would continue to fall from there. That might sound like a catastrophe, but the same money would still be in the system, so it would be perfectly possible to pay all of these people the same amount as before to stay at home and do nothing while the country as a whole would be better off (due to such things as massive savings in transport infrastructure). The environmental costs of all these people going about their daily business to do their fake work would be eliminated, so it would lead to a cascade of gains upon gains. The key to solving our environmental problems is actually to pay people to be unemployed and make unemployment a respectable lifestyle choice - low impact on the environment while free to travel the world at low speed (who needs cars or planes when you aren't in a hurry) while bringing up their families on the move. That is what we should have been doing for decades instead of flogging the planet within an inch of its life in order to pursue crazy goals which have taken us in completely the wrong direction.
The impending A.I. revolution will force everyone to see the truth of how things are and how things should be. To be a useful member of society you don't need to join the mad race in which you are expected to drive about everywhere and waste half your life on a fake job that simply doesn't need to be done: you should actually be trying to eliminate work from your life, and from the lives of everyone else. We haven't been liberated from toil because we've been chasing the wrong goals - after your food, shelter and health needs are met, what more does it take to give you a good life? We have destroyed our own planet by our blindness, failing to realise that we are actually tearing everything apart in order to get away from the life of wealth, freedom and leisure which would otherwise have come our way. What are you getting for the money you spend? Hours a day sitting in a car going to work that simply doesn't need to be done. Your children are locked up in prisons all day and aren't allowed to explore and play in the real world. You're surrounded by hellish roads which make going out dangerous. The ability of the planet to sustain life is being destroyed at an ever-increasing rate, and the so-called cure is to destroy it even faster in order to make us rich enough to rebuild everything in the future, but it's all based on lies: we already produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet, so how are the tons of waste paper generated through bureaucracies designed to create employment adding to our quality of life? What's with all this destruction? Why does everyone have to be in such a rush to get everywhere when they should have all the time in the world? Fake jobs are destroying this planet, and most of the students being pushed through the university system at enormous expense are being prepared to do nothing more than fake work. Much of the work that doesn't appear to be fake is actually done to support the people doing fake work, so it too is fake when you unpick it. Fake work is killing us. Open your eyes to reality: we have to scale back. When it comes to education, we should apply some intelligence and restructure our institutions to minimise the costs while at the same time giving people more freedom. The big expense is supposed to be justified by the big rewards, but these rewards come primarily in the form of payments for fake work. I suggest that you think about what I've said here and discuss it with others: am I crazy, or is it just possible that I've hit the nail squarely on the head? Are you paying other people to waste your children's lives while you help destroy our life support systems (i.e. the planet) by rushing around doing fake work?

4: P.E. and Obesity

Two hours of P.E. a week instead of one? What kind of ambition is that? When I was at school, we already had two hours of it, although one of those hours was branded as "leisure" or "activities" instead. Despite that, we rarely got out of breath because we spent most of the time not moving. The only decent exercise we got was with cross-country running where the activity was necessarily sustained, but we rarely had the opportunity to do that due to the crazy idea that we should all be forced to take part in a wide range of different sports, the result being that we spent most of the time standing around doing nothing, occasionally throwing a javelin a few metres or jumping a couple of yards into a sand pit. The second best activity in school P.E. from the point of view of fitness was swimming, but that was usually ruined by the requirement that we should swim a breadth, then stop for a while, then swim another followed by another stop, and so on for the whole session. I would have swum a mile or more every single time if I'd been allowed to, but we were lucky if we were ever given the chance to do a quarter of that.
We need to remove the barriers that get in the way of real exercise, and that means putting children in charge of their own sporting activities, provided that they're not slackers. Fair enough to put all the lazy ones into a class and bark at them for an hour to try to make them move occasionally, but let the rest get on with working on turning themselves into proper athletes if they want to. I would have liked to have gone for a five mile run in the woods three days a week from school (I couldn't do that from home as I'd have had to run on tarmac most of the time, something which I don't enjoy). I would also have liked to have done a mile swim on the two days in between, and that should have been possible because the pool was completely unused most of the time.
We put barriers in the way of children who want to do real sport, forcing them instead to stand about on playing fields where the usual game is to try to avoid getting anywhere near the ball (many children have to focus on avoiding all the situations where a thug might try to exploit the game to assault them within the rules, either with a hockey ball or stick in the face, or just being flattened by an intentional mis-timed rugby tackle). I hated most of the sports we were introduced to, and I hated them all the more after being forced to try them, so what was the point? The ones which I was happy to try, I would have willingly taken part in them all without needing to be forced into it, but I'd also have done an hour or proper sustained exercise in addition every day. That option was never open to me, and it isn't open to children today either: the system inflicts inactivity upon them.
But how can you force fat children to take part in activities involving real, sustained exercise? Well, you can't. However, you can encourage them in that direction if you set things up properly. Children could be given rewards in the form of money for achieving targets in running and swimming (plus cycling too, if health and safety doesn't get in the way). There should be targets at all levels so that unfit children can still pick up the smaller rewards, but there would always be a real incentive to get to the next level and to earn more. If you want a fit population, you need to pay for it, but it'll pay you back in the future by reducing the cost of dealing with all the health problems which would otherwise have inflicted these people in later life. Another way to encourage children to be fitter is to reward the ones who aren't lazy by offering extra activities to them, such as clay pigeon shooting, sailing, hill walking, skiing, etc.
So, come on people! Make sport attractive by allowing children to choose to take part in the sports that actually appeal to them. There are millions of children in school who are being put off sport for life by the way that P.E. is currently inflicted on them. And please do something about Gym in primary school while you're about it - it simply isn't sport, and it isn't exercise either. Give children of all ages the choice of going for a long run or a long swim (if a pool's available) every day so that they can build up real muscle and stamina, as well as gaining sufficient addiction to exercise to get them to the point where they start to feel fully alive. I only discovered just how alive exercise could make me feel after I left school and started to do long cycle runs on a regular basis, and it didn't take long before I could do a hundred miles a day and think nothing of it. Every child should be going on ten to twenty mile cycle runs once a week by the time they're eight and are big enough to be safe on the roads, though it'll take a lot of changes to the attitudes of drivers and to laws before this kind of thing can become the norm - we need rules about the speeds at which cars can overtake cyclists, forcing them to slow down until the difference in speed is no more than about ten miles an hour. It'll also take changes to the culture of fake education which wastes children's time in school and which makes it so completely impossible for them to find the time to do anything worthwhile instead. We've created a nightmare environment where children have to be transported everywhere in crash cages and where they are cut off from the real world at every turn. We have turned children into virtual beings who are only allowed to live and explore in the world of computer games, a place in which there is absolutely no advantage to be gained from having real-world fitness. We keep them all locked up behind bars, compensating them with food and only allowing them to play in fake environments where they are "free" to explore in "safety". The truth of it is, this way of life is killing them.

3: Why is school all or nothing?

Why are people forced to make a choice between a school education or home education without any option of a mix? This situation suits no one: either children get locked into school and their parents aren't allowed to take them off on holiday during term time, or children are shut out of school and aren't allowed to join in with anything that happens there, even though their parents have paid for all the services that schools offer. This situation is unfair to all, and in some cases if even causes children to die.
Think in particular about what happens when parents split up. One of them wins custody and the children spend half the holidays with each. Why does one have to win rather than a 50:50 split for both term time and holidays? It's entirely because of school. Think of all the children who have died because the losing parent has killed them. Would they have done so if there had been no contest over them? Children aren't only locked into school, but into a single school, and this is totally unnecessary - they should be able to attend different schools wherever they are at the time and alternate between two schools as they move backwards and forwards between their separated parents.
What happens when there's a divorce between parents where one is keen on home education and the other is not? Well, it's quite simple: the one who wants to home educate them is likely to lose custody because they will be seen as irresponsible just because they go against the mainstream in a system that generates artificial disadvantages for them, so the children are likely to end up in school, even if they hate it. I wonder if any children have ever been killed by a parent who feared that they would be forced into school and might find the oppressive nature of it soul-destroying? A recent case certainly looks like that, though there may have been additional factors.
I want to see schools open up to home-educated children so that they can attend them if and when they want to, and I also want them to open up in the other direction so that parents can keep their children off school whenever they want to, just so long as it doesn't get in the way of their education. A move towards individualised education would make this possible and it would be massively more efficient, though friends would be free to work together on the same things at the same time if they want to. Given that most of the time children currently spend in school is wasted, everyone will be much better off. Education and happiness are both heavily supressed by the current system, so why would anyone not want to change it?
I should add that parents shouldn't have a right to prevent their children going to school either if they want to go there, and once schools are set up the way they ought to be set up, I can imagine that most children will want to go there quite often - even the ones who currently hate school. They key thing is that they should be allowed to go there on their own terms because that will guarantee that their time is never being needlessly wasted.

2: Scottish Curriculum for Excellence

Well, the big revolution in Scottish education has begun. But what exactly is it?

That's the question everyone's been asking for a long time, and teachers had been asking it with increasing urgency as the big day approached. I've had a large number of worried teachers asking me if I can make sense of it for them, and fortunately I can. The truth of it is, it isn't a curriculum at all, but more of an ideology framed in woolly language and with absolutely no significant content. The documentation consists in large measure of lists of "I can..." statements, which are meant to bring about a change in the emphasis of teaching so that teachers might be more inclined to see everything from the child's side of things. What can this child do? What would this child like to be able to say he or she can do? The big idea is to involve the child in this whole process so that he (or she) can see what he has already learned, what he is learning now, and perhaps a little of what he will be learning later. It is to make education seem more purposeful so that every child is engaged in the process and is able to reflect on his achievements.
Nice. But what does it really mean, other than another change to the relentless bureaucracy that gets in the way of actual teaching. Is the teacher freed up to use their own initiative, or do they have to spend half their time putting tens of thousands of meaningless codes into boxes on paper or computer screen that no one will ever bother to refer to for any practical purpose? It is also hard to imagine what kind of satisfaction any child could get from chanting through any of the "I can..." statements that might apply to them, because if you read through the lists to compare the different levels expected of different ages of children, it's hard to spot any significant progress being made at all. To be blunt about it, the whole thing looks like a little project flung together by a group of terribly ernest primary seven girls.
Still, the good news is that teachers are free to go on teaching the old curriculum until such time as anything resembling a new one is created, but given that the idea is that teachers are also free to create their own curriculum, it no longer matters if they don't stick rigidly to the old one, just so long as they make sure they cover the same ground. They will be able to mix subjects up together if they want to, thereby making it much harder to ensure that they are covering the ground they need to. This might, if they can design innovative new courses which tie different subjects together in the right way, still cover the required ground in the same time while making the boring bits of one subject less boring by integrating them with interesting parts of another subject which may consequently become less interesting, but it is just possible that the whole mix will be a little more interesting overall. It might work, but it will take a lot of work to get it right. You really have to ask yourself if it's the right direction to go in, because there are other approaches which could bring about a genuine revolution in education. Children currently spend on average less than five minutes a day learning anything of genuine value in a primary school, and by the top of secondary that figure struggles to get to over half an hour a day. Isn't it obvious that we should be trying something new?
What the Curriculum for Excellence really is at the moment is one of the longest mission statements in history, and one which says the least. When you actually try to find anything in there that might be of real use to teachers, what do you find? I hunted through the official CfE site and clicked on "Resources" at the bottom of every page I could find which offered a link to them, but every single one was totally devoid of content.
As for how Scotland compares internationally on education, well, they don't want us to be able to find out - they've just withdrawn from the system that currently enables proper comparison, and they've done so on "cost grounds". The reality is that they don't want the mess they're making to show up. Still, it shouldn't be too much of a mess as it would be difficult for them to slip backwards, but they've spent a fortune so far on generating waste paper and a bureaucracy that will drive even more good teachers out of the profession by preventing them from doing the job they want to be allowed to get on with. Maybe now they'll start to think about the actual curriculum part of the name and address that? In the meantime, anyone who cares about educating children should be seriously thinking about bypassing the system altogether.

1: Education = school?

You don't like school? How do you think you're going to learn anything if you don't go to school? How are you going to get a job without going to school and getting qualifications? You don't have a choice - you're going to school whether you like it or not! You may think you don't like it now, but when you're older you'll look back on it as the happiest time of your life! That's what parents always say to children who don't want to go to school, but are they right?
Well, I went through the system and learned next to nothing from it. What a crazy way to waste your childhood! I wanted to learn, and they wouldn't let me. I sat for seven years in a primary school doing nothing, then another two years doing more nothing in secondary until we finally began to play with the idea of learning in the two years after that, and the teachers actually began to show signs that they might be capable of living up to their name. In fifth and sixth year however, the teaching usually took the form of watching a chalk grinder write the world's worst physics or chemistry textbook on a blackboard for us to copy down. English was a little different - there we simply watched the corpse of a woman sitting in a chair by the window and wondered if the authorities would ever realise that she had been dead for twenty years.
No, I just don't see any real connection between education and school. It was a very long prison sentence for people whose crime was simply that they were young. The world had seemed to be on the point of opening up to us, and then wham! Eleven years in prison to contain and destroy the evil phenomenon known as childhood. Do I look back on it as the happiest time of my life? What do you think? If I had enjoyed it that much, I'd be arguing that all adults should be locked up in prison for life too. But no: prison often makes people worse rather than reforming them, and school turns a lot of children bad in exactly the same way. And why be good when you're already doing the time? I don't have a problem with compulsory education because we need an informed public in a democracy who can pull their weight, but compulsory imprisonment of children is simply child abuse. It's got to be stopped.